Once dependent on U.S. franchises (think Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Hard Rock Cafe), the coast’s fine dining scene is taking off, thanks to a cadre of Mexican chefs. International food is still popular — most of the world’s cuisines are represented here — but it is likely to show up in creative fusion restaurants. El Centro is a hive of innovation these days, as young chefs pay tribute to their roots with a modern twist. But you can always count on Mexican standbys, such as moles, tacos and chiles rellenos, often with a regional interpretation.
Reservations aren’t necessary at casual restaurants, but popular upscale places may book up, especially during holiday seasons. You can reserve online at OpenTable or Cancun Menus. Some all-inclusive resorts also require reservations at their restaurants.
Keep in mind that Mexico’s code of etiquette deems it rude to bring the check to a diner who hasn’t asked for it. A quick “La cuenta, por favor”will do the trick.
A mash-up of native, European, Caribbean and Middle Eastern influences, Yucatecan cuisine is distinguished from other Mexican cooking by piquant achiote (i.e., annatto), tangy lime, sour orange and earthy pumpkin seeds. Like elsewhere in Mexico, peppers are pervasive, though they often take a back seat to the citrus.
The venerable temples of Yucatecan food are Labná in El Centro and Yaxche in Playa del Carmen, but many restaurants serve the signature cochinita pibil(achiote-marinated pork baked in a pit), poc chuk(pork slices marinated in sour orange juice topped with pickled onions) and sopa de lima (chicken, tortilla and lime soup). La Habichuela turns local ingredients into showstoppers, like its famous cocobichuela (nearly 450,000 served!) — lobster and shrimp cooked in sweet curry presented in a coconut shell. Don’t miss zesty tikin-xic — achiote- and sour orange-marinated fish barbecued in banana leaves — that’s all the rage along the coast.
Long-standing culinary pillars, such as the Ritz-Carlton’s Continental-style Club Grilland the fish and steak house Puerto Madero are still going strong. They’re joined more recently by multiple-Michelin-starred Spanish chef Martín Berasategui’s Tempo in the Paradisus Cancún and Ramona in the Nizuc Resort. There, Mexican BladimirGarcía uses traditional Mexican ingredients in new ways, such as a foie gras dish with — wait for it — sautéed grasshoppers.
But the excitement is unmistakable in El Centro, where chef-owner Cristian Morales' intimate, artsy Cocina de Autor fuses ingredients from his native Argentina with those from the Caribbean, Italy, France andMexico, and where seven-table Du Mexique applies French techniques to Mexican ingredients. John Gray’s Kitchen, from the chef who elevated the Club Grill to iconic status, has put little Puerto Morelos on the culinary map with such temptations as roasted duck breast with tequila-chipotle-honey sauce.
Catering to locals (and their wallets), El Fish Fritanga in the Hotel Zone serves fresh, tasty seafood on a patio with palapa-shaded tables. In a nod to street food, local boy Christian Rodriguez contributes to El Centro’s innovative surge at funky, artsy Mora Mora, specializing in beer-braised beef tongue tacos. El Fogón, with two locations on Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue, is the official tourist taqueríafavorite, while Taqueria Don Beto in Tulum has mastered the cochinita pibil taco.
Ways to save: Visit that can’t-miss place for lunch, when a slightly smaller version of a dinner item doesn’t cost quite as much.